Katrina Denza ~ In These Dark Woods

The woman has walked this path cir­cling the reser­voir many times. She stays in a sim­ple but stur­dy cab­in near the base of the moun­tain when she’s up from the city. Today feels like autumn, and when she pulled into the park­ing lot off the high­way, there were only two oth­er cars: a green sedan and a white truck. To get to the head of the path, she had to hike uphill for a mile and a half. The dirt road wind­ing around the lake will be anoth­er mile. She likes to walk up here to clear her mind, to make space in her head for inspi­ra­tion, for cre­ativ­i­ty to grace her or give her the fin­ger whichev­er it’s inclined to do.

In sum­mer, fam­i­lies might share the path, or swim in the clear cold of spring-fed water. People who, like her, pre­fer to go out of their way for what­ev­er small patch­es of pure and untouched parts of nature still exist. Today, clouds hang low and gauze-like. Thunder growls low beyond her line of vision. There is no one swim­ming. No fam­i­lies or cou­ples spread out on blan­kets. There is just her and the moun­tain and the lake and the head of the path before her.

The woman is famous: first, for being an artist, and sec­ond for being a fem­i­nist, though the sec­ond is an unin­ten­tion­al result of the first. She began with con­cep­tu­al art: short films, small per­for­mance stud­ies, still life pieces that relied on the absurd. Her recent Soul of a Woman series has made her a celebri­ty. Each piece is a wall-sized col­lage using mixed media and found objects. The woman inter­views oth­er women, some­times for days, some­times weeks, gath­er­ing what she calls “the tan­gi­ble mate­r­i­al of the intan­gi­ble.” She intend­ed to include men, but after five of her female sub­jects, their com­plex­i­ty and sto­ries and sur­pris­es fas­ci­nat­ed her and she saw no good rea­son not to con­tin­ue. There are nine­teen in the series so far.

It is the end of August. A time in which the city has grown hot and irri­ta­ble and this area in Vermont already holds the promise of apple cider and pump­kins and the sharp smell of burn­ing wood. It’ll be the last time she’ll walk this path before spring. Her cab­in isn’t built for win­ter. Now, near the top of this small moun­tain, the air is cool and smells of fish. There is lit­tle bird song. No high-pitched calls from tree swal­lows. No chat­ter from goldfinch­es. Only the crows still heck­le from the tops of trees. The sweet scent of pine is thick in the damp, cool air. The woman takes note of the flow­ers dec­o­rat­ing the sides of the path as she pass­es, one sneak­ered foot in front of the oth­er: white clover, queen Anne’s lace, black-eyed Susans, daisies and pale pur­ple asters. These flow­ers dot­ted her child­hood sum­mer days. And fur­ther in the woods, if she looked, there would be striped bur­gundy tril­li­ums and pink lady slip­pers. In the mead­ows, bluets and but­ter­cups, Indian paint­brush­es and gold­en rod.

Above the woman’s head, the pine branch­es rus­tle and shim­mer in the breeze, a sooth­ing susurrus.

In a recent arti­cle, a crit­ic who writes for Art Today has stat­ed the woman’s vision is impor­tant. “Viewed indi­vid­u­al­ly and as a whole, this body of work forces the view­er to see a woman beyond social norms. Each woman is not mere­ly breasts and ass and moth­er and wife, but as var­ied and com­pli­cat­ed as a uni­verse. Each piece tells the sto­ry of a life lived awake and with feel­ing, the entire work a fem­i­nist bat­tle cry. No longer will women stand for being reduced or invis­i­ble the work seems to say. No longer will women remain under, under­ground, under­wa­ter, under­neath.”

Earlier in the month, on this very path, the woman plucked red rasp­ber­ries. Small explo­sions of sweet and tart on her tongue. Now, the berries appear rav­aged by birds, or bears, or peo­ple and the bush­es hold only those still green and sour and like­ly to nev­er ripen before drop­ping to the ground.

She’s not quite halfway around the lake when she thinks she hears the pat­ter, like dog paws on a wood­en floor, of rain falling on the trees above her. To her left, light shim­mers on the met­al-grey of the lake and rot­ted and naked logs lie like fall­en sol­diers along its bank.

Hair ris­es on her arms. A feel­ing of being watched. The woods have always been safe for her. Even as young as eight, she trav­eled through the for­est near her house, on paths or off. This day, though, she can’t shake the uneasi­ness. She peers through the trees on either side, past clutch­es of birch and firs. Through brush and shrub­bery too thick. The feel­ing reminds her of the sto­ry her lover told her about being in Canada on an assign­ment and how it felt to be stalked by a polar bear. To know that even when you can’t see them, there’s at least one eye­ing you for din­ner. “They’re can­ni­bals,” her lover had said. “They’ll eat their own kids.” He told her he had night­mares about being mauled by a bear for years after that assign­ment. “The only ani­mals known to inten­tion­al­ly hunt humans,” he said, his voice low and heavy.

A drop of rain taps her cheek and takes her out of her fear. No one would be out in weath­er like this. Plus, she’s already been raped. Her fresh­man year of col­lege. Now that she’s old­er, much old­er, two acts of sex­u­al vio­lence in one life­time are unlike­ly. Since turn­ing forty, she’s told her­self this.

Her lover died last November on assign­ment in Yemen. He was writ­ing a piece on how Yemen still pro­mot­ed tourism amidst insta­bil­i­ty. He sent her pic­tures of dragon’s blood trees and their sap which flowed red like blood. His own blood flowed when an airstrike hit his hotel. She miss­es him. Misses tex­ting him ran­dom­ly or send­ing him pic­tures of weird things. Misses his strong body, easy smile, and skilled tongue. No man made her orgasm like he did. Sometimes she thinks he can still see her from wher­ev­er he is or isn’t. Sometimes she believes he might now be privy to her thoughts. She hopes so. She hopes he feels duly appre­ci­at­ed and even a lit­tle shocked. He had a ten­den­cy to be a prude for all his world­li­ness. They had a week­end in Paris—he flew her there to meet him—and their first night he asked her why she was so vul­gar. They were in bed. The cur­tains opened, they could see into the Catholic school across the alley­way. School was out for Christmas break.

You don’t like the word fuck when we’re fuck­ing.” The woman rolled her eyes but his eyes were on the ceil­ing.

You talk like a man.”

I talk like a woman hav­ing a good time.”

You talk like a porn star.”

Maybe I like porn.”

You can’t be a fem­i­nist and like porn.”

Fuck you. Then when you’re fin­ished, fuck me.”

They end­ed up laugh­ing about it, but after that week­end, she became self-con­scious about what came out of her mouth dur­ing sex. She wish­es now she hadn’t con­ced­ed so eas­i­ly.

A horse­fly careens through the air around the woman’s face. She bats at it with her hand and makes con­tact. Steps on its stunned body as she pass­es.

She’s more than halfway around the reser­voir. Here is the old stone wall built by set­tling farm­ers two hun­dred years ear­li­er. Here is the crum­bling foun­da­tion of an old stand­ing well fur­ther on. The woman checks the sky when she hears thun­der but there’s been no rain since the one drop on her face, though the air has thick­ened. Crickets sound off in dis­tant mead­ows.

The woman wants to inter­view a writer, a friend of her lover, whom she met at his memo­r­i­al ser­vice. The writer has trav­eled all over the world. Most recent­ly, Jarkarta. The writer flew there to escort her elder­ly Indonesian friend on a Mecca trip to Saudi Arabia. Not allowed to leave her hotel room in Medina because she wasn’t a Muslim, the writer hung out in the hotel, which she said was like a small city any­way.

As she walks, the woman’s mind shifts to what she might include in a col­lage of her own life: sand dol­lars and sea shells, Eiffel Tower, alge­bra­ic equa­tions, details from a Kandinsky, a brown bear in a win­dow, black-eyed Susans, a pic­ture of Vincent Price, a rust bloom on a pipeline, maple syrup buck­et attached to a tree in spring, birch bark, title pages from her favorite books, a pos­i­tive preg­nan­cy test.

A bird flies up from a clus­ter of bush­es and star­tles the woman. She jumps and lets out a qui­et, “Oh.”

A fig­ure emerges around a cor­ner fur­ther down the path.

The woman is new­ly alert, maybe even alarmed, though she knew in the back of her mind she wasn’t alone on this moun­tain path near the lake. She remem­bers the truck and the sedan. Never real­ly for­got them. Her heart thumps to her throat. The heart is a mus­cle, and mus­cles are made to work, she tells her­self to slow the thump­ing.

As he approach­es, the woman sees the fig­ure is a man and that he is tall and large, but not mus­cu­lar. His bulk is inci­den­tal. The man, bald, wears maroon run­ning pants which bag at the knee and a dark blue tee, wet under the arms and against his stom­ach. She’s close enough to smell him: body odor, a hint of beer, a hint of rot, and under these ani­mal smells, the per­fume of dry­er sheets.

She tries to catch his eye before she pass­es. He doesn’t look at her. He looks ahead, as if she doesn’t exist, as if she’s not stand­ing on the same path around the lake in the woods as he.

She’s almost back to the point where she start­ed, the place where the path ends and the grav­el road begins. He’s going the oppo­site way.

She waits a few steps before she turns her head to look behind her.

The woman sees the man has also stopped. He’s look­ing up at some­thing in the trees. Her palms are slick with sweat.

Her lover told her that to have even the slimmest chance of sur­viv­ing an encounter with a polar bear you must avoid act­ing like prey. “They’ll smell your fear,” he said. “You can’t out­run them. You can’t out-fight them. Playing dead only makes things easy for them. Might as well stand there and imag­ine white light or pray or what­ev­er oth­er mag­ic tricks you’ve come to rely on.”

An end of sum­mer day. A clear, cold lake at the top of a small moun­tain. A gray sky that threat­ens.

Here is the woman. Here is the light.

~

Katrina Denza’s work has been pub­lished in The Jabberwock Review, New Delta Review, Passages North, REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters, Gargoyle #57, The Emerson Review, wigleaf and Pank, among oth­ers, and most recent­ly in the debut issue of This is Bill Gorton.